Chief of the Defence Force - Statement on IGADF Afghanistan Inquiry
19 November 2020
I acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land upon which we meet, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their Elders; past, present and emerging.
Today, the Australian Defence Force is rightly held to account for allegations of grave misconduct by some members of our Special Forces community on operations in Afghanistan.
Before turning to the Inspector-General’s report, it’s important to note that over the period from 2005 to 2016, more than 26,000 Australians served in Afghanistan, 3,000 of them in the Special Operations Task Group.
An enormous amount of good work was done by many and we should be proud of their contribution, as they should be proud of their contribution.
What the Inspector-General finds is greatly at odds with that good effort and damaging to our moral authority as a military force.
His report details credible information regarding deeply disturbing allegations of unlawful killings by some.
I respectfully ask Australians to remember and have faith in the many. I assure you I do.
To the people of Afghanistan, on behalf of the Australian Defence Force, I sincerely and unreservedly apologise for any wrongdoing by Australian soldiers. I’ve spoken directly with my Afghan counterpart, General Zia, to convey this message.
Such alleged behaviour:
- profoundly disrespected the trust placed in us by the Afghan people who had asked us to their country to help them;
- it would have devastated the lives of Afghan families and communities, causing immeasurable pain and suffering; and
- it would have put in jeopardy our mission and the safety of our Afghan and coalition partners.
And to the people of Australia, I am sincerely sorry for any wrongdoing by members of the Australian Defence Force.
You’re right to expect that your defence force will defend your nation and its interests in a manner that accords with our nation’s values and laws.
Turning to the Inspector-General’s report, he found:
- none of the alleged unlawful killings were described as being in the heat of battle;
- none were alleged to have occurred in circumstances in which the intent of the perpetrator was unclear, confused or mistaken;
- and every person spoken to by the Inquiry thoroughly understood the Law of Armed Conflict and the Rules of Engagement under which they operated.
These findings allege the most serious breaches of military conduct and professional values.
The unlawful killing of civilians and prisoners is never acceptable.
It’s my duty and that of my fellow Chiefs to set things right.
Accountability rests with those who allegedly broke the law and with the chain-of-command responsible for the systemic failures, which enabled alleged breaches to occur and go undetected.
In order to deal with what happened we need to understand how it could have happened. I will offer a preliminary view based on both the Inspector-General’s findings and my own professional judgement.
It starts with culture.
The report finds that some Special Air Service Regiment commanders in Australia fostered within the SAS what Justice Brereton terms a self-centred warrior culture, a misplaced focus on prestige, status and power, turning away from the Regiment’s heritage of military excellence fused with the quiet humility of service.
The report notes that distorted culture was embraced and amplified by some experienced, charismatic and influential non-commissioned officers and their protégés who sought to fuse military excellence with ego, elitism and entitlement.
As units became consumed with preparing for and fighting the war much of the good order and discipline of military life fell away. Cutting corners, ignoring and bending rules was normalised.
What also emerged was a toxic competitiveness between the Special Air Service Regiment and the 2nd Commando Regiment. Destructive of trust, cohesion and mission and a disgrace to both.
Not correcting this culture as it developed was a failure of unit and higher command.
Turning now to the challenging counterinsurgency environment of Afghanistan.
People detained would be released if there was no formal link that linked them to insurgent activity.
‘Catch and release’, as it came to be known, throughout the coalition, was frustrating and carried with it some risk, but it was also understood to be a necessary measure, a point of balance between the needs of security and the needs of justice, both essential in a counterinsurgency campaign.
In this context it’s alleged that some patrols took the law into their own hands. Rules were broken, stories concocted, lies told and prisoners killed. And once that rule was broken, so too for some was any further restraint.
Those who wished to speak up were allegedly discouraged, intimidated and discredited.
Here I want to emphasise again that the overwhelming majority of Special Forces personnel did not choose to take this unlawful path. No matter the stress and the strain of battle, they remained true to our values and our laws.
They are truly special – special because of the self-discipline and the courage they constantly displayed. They upheld our culture of service over self.
Culture also affected reporting.
The Inspector-General finds that troop, squadron and commanding officers of some Special Operations Task Group rotations indirectly contributed to alleged criminal behaviour.
This occurred in a number of ways, but particularly by accepting deviations from professional standards, by sanitising or embellishing reporting to avoid attracting attention, and by not challenging or verifying accounts given by those on the ground.
Oversight mechanisms, such as legal reviews, operational assessments and inquiries took place, but they were not sufficiently rigorous or independent. Individuals and processes were either suborned into the culture that had emerged, obstructed by it or frustrated by the silence it bred.
This Inquiry found no evidence that there was knowledge of or reckless indifference to the commission of war crimes on the part of Troop, Squadron and Commanders of Special Operations Task Groups and higher command.
However, being unaware of or even deliberately kept unaware of unlawful actions does not relieve commanders of moral responsibility, and the report finds task group commanders bear responsibility for what happened under their command.
Higher arrangements for command and control were found to be too dispersed and too distanced to consistently give effective direction and control to Special Operations Task Groups.
While commanders at many levels described the status of Special Operations Command as stretched but manageable, none appreciated that reporting and governance systems, which routinely described extraordinary performance, were no longer reflecting the whole truth on the ground.
Reporting was positive and soldiers and field commanders alike showed genuine enthusiasm for their campaign and for their participation in it. Nevertheless, higher command should have recognised sooner that the units of Special Operations Command were unable to sustain all the demands placed upon them.
Justice Brereton considered in detail 57 allegations of incidents and issues.
He found there to be credible information to substantiate 23 incidents of alleged unlawful killing of 39 people by 25 Australian Special Forces personnel, predominantly from the Special Air Service Regiment.
Those alleged to have been unlawfully killed were all people under control – in lay terms, prisoners, farmers or other civilians.
This shameful record includes alleged instances in which new patrol members were coerced to shoot a prisoner in order to achieve that soldier’s first kill in an appalling practice known as ‘blooding’.
Further to this, ‘throwdown’ weapons and radios were also reportedly planted to support claims that people killed were ‘enemy killed in action’.
Some of these incidents took place in 2009 and 2010 with the majority occurring in the latter years of 2012 and 2013.
Alleged perpetrators deployed on between one and five Special Operations Task Group rotations over the period 2006 to 2013.
I have accepted all of the Inspector-General’s findings and a comprehensive implementation plan is being developed to action his 143 recommendations and any additional measures necessary.
I will lead this effort, supported by the Chief of Army and other senior Defence leaders.
We’ll report progressively on a quarterly basis to the Minister for Defence. The independent Afghanistan Inquiry Implementation Oversight Panel will have complete access to our work.
The recommendations deal with three main issues: culture, command reporting and governance, and within that wider context individual and collective accountability.
Firstly, in terms of culture, Army has in parallel with this Inquiry driven a comprehensive reform program within Special Operations Command over the last five years. This program focuses on ethical leadership, good governance and command responsibility.
While much good progress has been made, the report notes that elements of resistance to change and professionally corrosive attitudes or behaviours persist.
The Inspector-General’s recommendations will strengthen and accelerate Army’s reform of Special Operations Command which will continue.
The allegations contained in this report are a tragic reminder of why the authority military excellence and small team autonomy so necessary for Special Operations are only secondary factors in our military success. Prime always is the nurturing of character and culture so that our people derive the strength to do what’s right in the most difficult of circumstances.
Defence senior leadership are committed to sustaining and promoting good culture based on Defence values and behaviours that empowers and enables military capability.
We have no tolerance for anything else, and we will strengthen and drive ethical leadership training across the force.
Secondly, our command, reporting and governance will be improved:
- by strengthening command and governance arrangements within and of Special Operations Command;
- by revising the Australian Defence Force’s model of command and control arrangements of Special Operations within coalition operations;
- by enhancing the record of action for Special Forces patrol operations through the use of digital technology;
- by improving the capacity, continuity and independence of review and inquiry processes on operations; and
- by strengthening the Inspector-General’s role in operational oversight.
Thirdly, with regard to individual and collective accountability:
Individuals alleged of unlawful criminal conduct will be referred to the Office of the Special Investigator.
Individuals alleged to be negligent in the performance of their duty will be managed through administrative and disciplinary processes.
Where decisions were made in good faith, individuals and the force more generally must learn from this experience, and we will embed this training into our development and education system.
As proposed in the report, I will review and make recommendation to the Governor-General with regard to the honours and awards received by a range of officers both in Australia and Afghanistan.
Units live and fight as a team. The report acknowledges, therefore, that there is also a collective responsibility for what is alleged to have happened.
With this in mind, I have accepted the Inspector-General’s recommendation and will write to the Governor-General requesting he revoke the Meritorious Unit Citation for Special Operations Task Groups who served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013.
Separately, the Chief of Army will today also announce changes to the Army’s Order of Battle – that is, its organisational structure.
While necessary, I appreciate that these latter decisions will be a bitter blow for many.
The report includes some very recent lines of inquiry, only partially considered by Justice Brereton’s team. If anyone has any new or additional information, I strongly encourage them to bring it to the attention of the Office of the Special Investigator once established. In the meantime, please pass it forward to the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force.
A redacted form of the Inquiry report will shortly be available. To ensure the procedural fairness of potential future investigations and possible court proceedings I cannot, however, release Part 2 of the report, which deals with specific incidents and individuals.
In conclusion, I thank the Inspector-General, Mr Jim Gaynor, and Justice Paul Brereton and his team, for your comprehensive and tireless efforts in bringing together the Afghanistan Inquiry. I also acknowledge Professor David Whetham for his important contribution to the Inquiry’s consideration of systemic factors.
And I thank everyone who has come forward to speak to the Inquiry. Your contribution will help make us a better force.
I would also like to acknowledge the work of Dr Samantha Crompvoets who first brought this issue to higher command attention, Major General Jeff Sengelman who had the moral courage to confront it, and Mr David Irvine who’s been assisting us with Special Forces reform.
I know this Inquiry has taken a considerable toll on our people and their families. We will continue to support those affected, and I encourage anyone who needs to seek assistance.
I again acknowledge and thank those many thousands of Australians who served in Afghanistan and did the right thing – professionally and with honour. And this includes many, many of our Special Forces personnel. You did extraordinary work.
The actions of some do not represent the integrity and value of your service. You should be rightly proud of your contribution to our nation’s history.
Today marks an important but difficult step forward for the Australian Defence Force and our people.
Thank you for your continued service to this great nation – ethically, lawfully and in a manner that speaks to our lived values of service, courage, integrity, respect and excellence.